Why is a good utility player so hard to find?

If baseball really were a religion, and some of my friends seem to think it is, then it would need a few sacred mysteries that we should all ponder.  I nominate Denny Hocking.  Baseball has had its share of below average players, but they never seem to stick around all that long.  Hocking managed to play in more than 50 games in a season for eight consecutive years!  Was it for his offensive prowess?  Here’s a man with a career .251/.310/.344 line (wow!), who was a career 57% base stealer (not that he ever really went that often… 36 career steals), and didn’t hit for power either, (25 career HR in 2600+ PA), and had a career OPS+ of 68.  He did lay down a few sac bunts here and there, but during his “peak” OPS+ year (2000, OPS+ was 94), he also set a personal best in sac bunts.  What does it say when in the middle of your career year, you’re asked to bunt even more?  It means that you need to find a new line of work. 
The only thing that he really had going for him was that you could basically stick him anywhere on the field, defensively, and he would stand there.  The man built an eight-year career out of simply being willing to play anywhere he was asked.  Yes, Denny Hocking was the quinteseential “utility guy.”  In his career, he managed to appear in at least 45 games at all seven of the non-battery positions.  He even DHed a few times!  Here’s the thing: When I looked again at Hocking’s fielding statistics (at least the one posted on baseball-reference, range factor), it showed that most of the time he was actually below the league average for each of the positions he played.  So, it wasn’t that Hocking was some sort of defensive specialist or wizard.  He was simply gullible enough to do what Tom Kelly asked of him and to do it poorly.
Let’s leave aside the fact that most utility players aren’t great with the bat.  If they were, they’d probably be starting somewhere.  They’re on the bench for a reason, generally because they supposedly know how to play a couple of different positions and can give the regulars a day off here and there.  It’s an odd thing though.  Generally, players are developed as position specialists (that is, they come up as third basemen or right fielders or something like that).  Then, when teams discover that the players are marginal/bench players offensively, they are asked to learn the skills of another position or two to stick around as utility guys.  Seemingly, the most popular combinations are the middle infield guy (who might also play a little 3B), the fourth outfielder (who might play 2 or sometimes all 3 of the OF spots), the corner infield guy (usually a failed 3B who can also play 1B).  It’s rare that more exotic combinations (the 2B who also plays RF, 1B who plays CF) occur.  Catchers are usually a species unto themselves.
But are players who are good at a certain particular position better candidates to learn to play other positions?  What can we learn from the data out there?  I took the Lahman fielding database, and selected out for 2000-2006.  I picked those years because the data are broken down by OF position (that is, individual numbers for performance in LF, CF, and RF), and because those years have zone rating numbers for each position.  Despite the problems with zone rating, it was all that is available for free.
Over those seven years, I selected for players who played more than 90 innings (10 games) in two or more positions (excluding pitcher).  Sampling here was difficult.  If I dropped the innings requirement too low, I run into the problem of a ZR based on too small a sample size.  If I make the criteria too high, I would cut my overall sample sizes to an entirely too small levels.  I then ran correlations on the range factors posted by at each position in each qualifying player-year.  Before I get the comments, there are a few problems with this strategy.  First, I’m going to be getting many of the same players from year to year, meaning that I’m violating the independence of observations assumption.  Also, the folks I’m comparing are, by the fact that most are on the bench, below average for MLB (apologies go out to the Figgins family and Angels fans everywhere.  Please don’t send the hate mail.  I know he’s in there too.  Right, Sean?).  These guys are also the ones who the manager thinks can play more than one position.  So, the representativeness of the sample is suspect.  More so, correlation coefficients will have to be calculated relative to the respective means of range factor within this rather restricted sample.  This study is far from ideal, and I would do things much differently if I had these guys’ data.  But stay with me.
First off, you can learn a lot by counting things.  Over the seven years of data, very few catchers came out from behind the plate for any extended period of time.  The most common position for catchers to also play was first base, but there were only 20 player-seasons where a catcher caught 90 innings and played 90 innings at 1B.  On the flip side, there were at least 200 cases in each combination of OF slots (LF-RF, LF-CF, CF-RF), and at least 130 in the each of the non-first base infield combos (2B-SS, 2B-3B, SS-3B).  First basemen were most likely to two-time as (or be the alter egos of) 3B, LF, and RF (in that order).
So, which positions saw the highest correlation of skills?  Would you believe center field and third base?  (Huh?)  The two were correlated at -.521.  That means that good center fielders made for generally poor third basemen, and vice versa.  This is based on a sample size of 23, so read into it at your own risk (it is significant at the .05 level), but it would seem on an intuitive level that the skills needed in CF (good range, catching fly balls) would be a lot different than those needed on the hot corner (quick reflexes, fielding ground balls).  Any other significant correlations?  There’s a negative correlation between zone rating at second and zone rating at first base and at second base (r = -.342) and a positive one between first and third (r = .225).  As far as significant correlations go, that’s it.
What jumped out at me in this particular analysis was how little intercorrelation there was among zone ratings for these utility guys.  Even SS and 2B, two positions largely considered to be interchangeable, weren’t even correlated.  This means that knowing whether a utility player is a good SS tells you nothing at all about whether he’d make a good 2B.  Outfield positions showed almost no correlation with each other, with the greatest correlation being LF-RF at .106, which is just shy of significance (p = .056).
So, largely, skill at one position doesn’t necessarily translate to skill at another position.  Now, this is using a flawed metric and my research methodology is lacking, but it says something about utility players.  If skill at the different positions is uncorrelated, then it becomes a challenge to find a guy who’s good at two or three of them and can still carry enough of a bat to warrant a spot on a major league bench.  It also says something about Denny Hocking, who accomplished the truly remarkable by having a major league career despite doing none of the above.

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2 Responses to Why is a good utility player so hard to find?

  1. Sean Smith says:

    I’m surprised by the low correlations but I wonder if that’s due to the small cutoff values used. A player’s 10 game sample of zone rating doesn’t tell you much, though most players in the sample have more than that.
    I know people (myself included) have looked at how the average player switching positions is affected, say a 2B is 10 runs worse per year if he’s moved to SS, but I don’t know if anyone has looked at correlation before. Good work.

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    This was a really hard one to do. Sample sizes are small in some of those cells, and the sample unto itself is much more restrictive than I’d like. If only managers would just randomly assign players to new positions once in a while! Those of us out here in the Sabermetric community would be much obliged.

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